Luis and Walter Alvarez

Dense is the stone and rare that marks the line between death and life.

I have been a miner for a lode of iridium. Neither platinum nor palladium exceeds iridium's capacity to resist corrosion, and not even aqua regia can melt it. Indeed, iridium and its near cousin osmium made themselves known to humanity when these metals emerged from the sludge of crude platinum dissolved in a royal bath of hydrochloric and nitric acid. Spark plugs, compass bearings, and supercolliders put iridium to work. Long ago pen manufacturers put iridium in their nibs, and finely powdered iridium black painted many a piece of porcelain. But none of iridium's practical purposes interest me. I think of it solely as evidence, as memento mori and a marker at the greatest boundary the mind can comprehend.

Element 77 is the rarest nonradioactive metal in the earth's crust; only osmium, number 76, might be denser. When the earth was young and hot, these elements dove toward the core. Despite their simplicity, some metals love others in a fashion even the living can imagine, and iridium, osmium, and their alloys love iron, especially in its molten state. These siderophile metals followed iron as it sank. One streak straddles the globe near its surface, and iridium in the crust guards the frontier between the penultimate great dying and the present day.

Read the rest of this chapter . . . .Smaller bodies in space are friendlier to iridium. Chondritic meteorites and asteroids contain iridium at concentrations three orders of magnitude greater than the metal's concentration in the earth's crust. But not in one layer of clay, dated 65 million years ago. Relatively ample iridium in that layer accompanies other telltale constituents of the soil, especially granules of shocked quartz. Something big, something not native to this planet, struck earth those millions of years ago. Father and son, physicist and geologist, Luis and Walter Alvarez inferred that iridium anomalies bear indisputable witness to a bolide strike. Natural historians treat that extended moment as the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods of geologic time. Ordinary people know the K-T boundary as the twilight of the dinosaurs.

ChicxulubI found myself a solitary pledge of a fraternity uniting the world's deepest seekers of historic curiosity. Hail iridium, and curtains on the Cretaceous. In one sense, the most obvious way to start — and to finish — crossing the K-T boundary is to visit the craters left by the objects thought to be responsible for mass extinctions that marked the close of the Cretaceous. Lesser sites such as Silverpit, Boltysh, and Shiva notwithstanding, this way of thinking leads directly to Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatán. "The devil's tail" is nothing short of ground zero on the geologic day when the heavens dropped destruction on the surface and the deep, when the sky rained death from the clouds on clade after clade.

Going first to Chicxulub, however, seems oddly out of order. Forensic geology turned its attention to Chicxulub only after the earth's iridium signature at the K-T boundary suggested an extraterrestrial cause for the great dying. In strictly historical terms, of course, the craters preceded the iridium streak. First impact, then the slow settling of the resulting shower of alien metal and shocked quartz. As a matter of human knowledge, though, iridium came first. The geophysicist who first found the Chicxulub Crater was looking for oil; investigations into the formation's historic significance began only after the iridium anomaly at the K-T boundary had come to light. Anyone who finds the truth knows that the moment of recognition — εὑρηκα! — precedes in psychological time and perhaps in emotional weight the historical events that the seeker of truth has tried to reveal. Iridium is to impact as realization is to reality.

The K-T boundary is far more mysterious than it is elusive. The hundred-odd known outcroppings of iridium-rich clay marking the dawn of the Tertiary have not hidden themselves from visitors, serious or frivolous. The true wonders in this world, after all, do not hide. Rather, they wait in plain sight, obscured not so much by ice or vegetation as by the shades we draw across our eyes. Most of geologic history belongs in this category of true wonders. Terrestrial history accretes at rates too slow for any mortal observer to notice. But it leaves records in the form of rocks and soils and layers.

CoccolithophoreOn extremely rare occasions, the chroniclers of geologic time pause to pick one fragment of one organism — a leaf, a wing, a shell, a bone — and enshrine it in some durable medium. The imprints of Carboniferous ferns, horsetails, and club mosses, insects in amber, the barely perceptible bas-relief of a mollusk, cliffs colored by coccolithophorid shells, even the hydrocarbon relics of ancient plant life that humans so casually burn and polymerize — all these bear mute testimony to worlds long past. What humanity, in its phanerozoic fascination with visible life, calls the fossil record strongly favors organisms with hard parts. Calcium indeed does a body good, especially if that body wants admirers millions of years beyond its death. Calcium, as in chalk, is known to the Greeks as κρητίδα, and the echoes of that word in Latin creta and German Kreide reverberate in English Cretaceous. (We shall not speak of κιμωλία, which is what schoolteachers might use to sketch lessons in classrooms on κρήτα.)

The iridium layer belongs to a less spectacular but arguably more revealing and therefore more truly wonderful part of natural history. Fossils aside, the chronicles of earth sweep indiscriminately across the chemical record of the planet, at each stage of its slowly unfolding life. All matter, biotic and abiotic, is recorded in the outermost layers of earth's crust. Iridium plays no biological function; no organism ever specialized in transforming it into a pheromone or a venom. The wonder of the iridium layer is precisely the opposite of the wonder of a fossil. The hadrosaur bone speaks of life long ago, the momentary triumph of an individual, a taxon, a clade in a long evolutionary parade. Every fossil, so to speak, tells an individual story. Iridium, by contrast, settled alongside the other detritus of the end-Cretaceous bolide strike. That collision laid waste on a global scale, and their calling cards — tektite, shocked quartz, element 77 — recount the epic of entire races extinguished in the blink of a geologic eye. Iridium marks but one layer, a dazzling layer, in a languid progression of unforgiving, unromantic layers of rock and soil marking the hours of a planetary clock.

And on occasion, ordinary forces conspire to reveal layers of geologic history for immediate inspection. The Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon through a spectacular cross-section of geologic history; lesser acts of erosion leave geologic works of art worthy of admiration in their own right, such as the Ordovician and Devonian palisades that preside over Garrard County, Kentucky. Water and wind are the chisels by which earth reveals its past for current consumption.

Raton PassIn North America alone, casual tourists can reach K-T boundary exposures with relative ease. The uppermost (and therefore most readily exposed) strata of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana unfurls the iridium-enriched boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, between the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic, in thin streaks as distinct as they are discontinuous. That formation reaches as far north as Drumheller, Alberta, where bands of iridium-rich soil run through nearby badlands. You can see the K-T boundary, passing by at 75 miles per hour, along Interstate 25 in Colorado, near Raton Pass. From there it is a very short drive to Lake Trinidad State Park, home to many open views of the iridium layer, lying like a garter belt on the scandalously exposed thigh of Mother Earth.

GubbioBut these sites would not do. If I would join the cult of iridium, no place but one would suffice for my initiation. Gubbio, an Umbrian town near Assisi, lies near the exposure where Luis and Walter Alvarez unlocked the mystery of the end-Cretaceous in an otherwise routine geologic survey of the Apennines. And so I found myself during that summer of regret and remembrance on a slow route to Gubbio, determined that the beginning of all my exploring would be to arrive where we heard the voices of the dying and knew the place for the first time.

I set out for Gubbio by a deliberately slow and tortuous path. I had waited years to set out for "the K-T," as I called the Alvarezes' outcropping in rhyming tribute to real hikers' nickname for the Appalachian Trail, and I felt no need to rush. I spent several days in Paris, as indistinct as they were leisurely, before boarding a TGV heading south across les grands champs de la République. Traveling by train between Paris and Gubbio realistically demands two days. I planned to split those two days with hiking along the Ligurian coast in anticipation of traveling south by southeast for a date with iridium.

The Cinque Terre — the "five lands" of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso — are not served by Italian rail's intercity trains. My itinerary from Paris required a change of trains in Lyon and again in Turin. I could not have arrived early enough in the day to book a room in any of the towns of the Cinque Terre. Instead I stopped in La Spezia, a gritty port town just east of the five seaside villages.

CornigliaBy daybreak I set out for Corniglia, the third village. Alone among the Cinque Terre, Corniglia stands high above its train station. I discovered this distinction as I stood on the platform. I had a reservation for a matrimoniale at the Ostello di Corniglia, which I accepted over the phone as soon as it was offered. Better to overpay to sleep alone, I thought, than to negotiate in any tongue not native to the land I was visiting. And at that moment I made my second decision in an hour to favor hard work over lazy tourism: electing to forgo a cab ride from the station, I would climb the staircase to town.

Corniglia's distance from its train station induces stair-climbing by tourists who would otherwise refuse strenuous exercise while on vacation. Americans, as a rule, are a fat and lazy race; we bypass stairs whenever elevators beckon. But Americans on the move are more obsessive than they are slothful, and the desire to visit all five towns of the Cinque Terre drives many visitors from the United States straight up Corniglia's staircase. Out of a mixture of necessity, enthusiasm, and patriotic obligation, I began climbing.

The legendary Orfeo, as he is known in Liguria, famously glimpsed Euridice for a fleeting second as he looked back down a dark staircase. That morning I found myself staring at Beatrice made incarnate as I ascended Corniglia's steps.

Halfway to town I spotted a pair of women looking intently out to sea. "Buongiorno," I said.

"You're not Italian," said the older woman. "Speak to us in English."

"Fair enough, ma'am," I said. My name's Ray Kuo. I'm on my way to town. It's my first full day in Italy."

I heard the younger woman mutter, no word more distinct than "Mother." Mom smiled, grateful for a chance to greet a countryman.

"Well, take pity on people who've been running all over the country. Don't race past them on the steepest outdoor staircase in Italy. I'm Shelley Harrelson, from Fort Worth, Texas, and this is my daughter, Reena."

The trip from Paris must have affected me more than I had anticipated, because I realized in that moment that I had focused entirely on Shelley and had somehow failed to notice her daughter. Something lyrical in Shelley's voice drew me toward her. At the word Reena, her voice released me. Granted leave to look, I found myself staring straight into the displeased face of Shelley's daughter. Reena Harrelson had not quite forgiven her mother for engaging a stranger in conversation.

Birth of VenusOf a sudden sweat burst from my hairline and collected behind the dam of my eyebrows. Half a peninsula away from the Uffizi, I felt as though I had crossed a museum barricade and gotten an illicit look at The Birth of Venus. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. By the morning's light I could not decide whether I would classify Reena's hair as pale red or simply blonde. Perhaps it was the mist, borne by wind from the sea and not yet burned away by the rising sun, or perhaps it was the faintest hint of sweat on her hair. I looked quickly side to side and hoped that Reena would not notice the to and fro of my eyes. Metal glimmered near her neck as she refocused her gaze from the sea behind me. Reena brushed aside a strand of hair that had blown into her face. She relaxed her shoulders. I exhaled.

"Pleased to meet you, Reena. Ray Kuo."

"Pleased to meet you, Ray."

Those words — pleased to meet you, Ray — revealed a truth I had missed in my rush to reach town. Some span of years — thirty-five, I would eventually learn, precisely half of Shelley's traditionally allotted three score and ten — separated mother from daughter, and my brisk climb kept me from studying their faces carefully enough to spot the family resemblance. But once Shelley had ordered me to stop and to speak to her, my ears at rest realized what my eyes in motion had missed. In pitch and timbre and acoustic resonance, the Harrelson women spoke almost identically; they were tuned, as it were, to the same amply, richly modulated frequency of 220 hertz.

I looked again at Reena. Amor mi mosse, che mi fa cantare. Surely this was a musical family. On the strength of a few seconds' conversation, I was prepared to stake everything on my hunch. I had even less time to frame a strategy for proving my wager before simple politeness dictated a swift and permanent parting of ways.

"Are you living here in Italy or just traveling through?"

"Both," Shelley interjected. "I can't tell you how proud I am to be traveling through Italy on my first-ever foreign trip, and I owe it all to Reena."

Reena sighed. I got the impression that Shelley had been sharing this particular source of family pride throughout Italy. Telling the story gave her evident joy, and I had every intention of letting Shelley Harrelson indulge in this tale. For the moment the staircase to Corniglia had become the most alluring attraction in the Cinque Terre, and every word Shelley spoke would extend my time on it.

"Reena is here on a Rotary. She's been here since she graduated from TCU."

"Mother, I'm sure Ray doesn't need the whole story." Ladies, I'm sure I do. "I've been studying in Rome."

"What subject?", I asked. God almighty, I thought. All that time in law school, and I finally get to ask a question to which I already know the answer. Too bad this grade won't go on my transcript.

"Operatic singing. I'm a soprano." Her voice was not pretentious. It was musical and true. The voice, the whole recital would haunt my memory.

Your very voice is music.

"I'd like to think of myself as your perfect fan," I said. "I produce no music of any kind, none whatsoever. But not being able to sing or play hasn't kept me from listening."

Not clever enough. Try something else.

"Ladies, it occurs to me that I will get to town way before my hotel will let me check in." I gestured toward the suitcase I had dropped when Shelley first spoke to me. "If you don't mind, I'd like you to join me for breakfast, or at least coffee." Ah, coffee. I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. "I'll gladly buy in exchange for a few minutes of your company."

"We'd like that." Shelley beat Reena to the punch. I smiled. It's never a good sign when the mother likes you better, but this mother, at least, had just bought me another quarter-hour in the presence of her daughter. Grateful for the opportunity, I gestured up toward town and the top of the staircase. Shelley began climbing again, and Reena followed. Under threat of rain, we resumed our escalade, and rose toward the sunlight, into Corniglia, to drink coffee and to talk for an hour.

Oliver Wendell Holmes"The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience." So intoned Oliver Wendell Holmes in his 1881 magnum opus, The Common Law. "The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed." I once spent a thousand days at Harvard, determined to follow the path Holmes had blazed. I hoped to catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law. And so I memorized the opening paragraph of The Common Law. "The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics."

At a coffee shop in Corniglia, the middle village of the Cinque Terre, I recalibrated Holmesian wisdom:

This is the law of male experience: the life of man is binary logic.

Stand in my shoes — as I inescapably must — on the sidewalk, in a room filled with equal numbers of distant acquaintances and rank strangers, at the threshold of a hotel bar, and let your eyes sweep across the human panorama of the moment. Woman to the left, woman to the right, standing and beckoning. My mind rides into the valley of life.

And so the cascade of binary decisions begins. Would I, could I, should I, will I? — but most of all, Would I? Moment by moment the opening verbal gambit varies. Excuse me. Simply: Hi. Perhaps: Wow. But the logic of words expelled past the rising catch in the throat arises from the same sequence of smaller judgments, all informed by lifelong experience traceable to an inexorable impulse coded well before birth. Every new girl that you meet begins anew the same exercise in binary logic: Would I if I could?


The felt necessities of any moment, the prevalent sexual calculus, intuitions of private desire, avowed or unconscious, especially the prejudices which govern men, virtually dictate the rules by which men search for women. Life embodies the story of every species' evolution during natural history, and far too many men pursue their role in that story as if they knew only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.

The common man, as a rule, is at once lazy and stupid in his approach to courtship. Just one look, sang the Hollies, that's all it took. The quick visual scan yields indispensable information about fertility and desirability: symmetry, hip-to-waist ratio, apparent youth. Many men make a fetish of certain visual cues: hair color, breast size, cosmetic suggestions of sexual arousal. All this counts for something, and I cannot deny the power of the visual. Neither artist nor madman, I am no creature of infinite melancholy who patrols the boundaries, the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks, of that enchanted island.

Visual evaluation is as useless as it is universal. Over the course of human evolution, billions of encounters have ensured the essential democracy of the female form. Even more egalitarian is universal command of language. And so courtship proceeds in a swift polka of spot and speak. Man spots, man speaks, woman decides. As Robert Browning might have expressed the sentiment: man proposes, woman disposes. That day in Corniglia, however, I recognized an important albeit latent corollary to the binary logic of sexual scouting. Looking helps you sort according to ordinary criteria of visual allure. But to sort according to musical intelligence, that rarest and most capriciously distributed of genetic assets, you have to listen. If you listen carefully, and you have been lucky in choosing your companion, you might find yourself transported by the alchemy of love into the presence of the scarce and splendid talent of transforming mathematics into music.

Over coffee and bread that morning in Corniglia, I listened. Reena Harrelson was the youngest in her family, separated by nearly two decades from the oldest sister and by death from her father. All five children of Frank and Shelley Harrelson showed some musical proclivity. Reena alone inherited her mother's mastery of song. Reena's command of the Baptist hymnal convinced her mother that Texas Christian University could indeed accommodate one more music major. And in the ripeness of time the Tarrant County Rotary Club was duly impressed. Reena won a scholarship to study opera for a year in Rome.

"And that is how we came to be in Italy. Reena's winding down now, and I knew I'd never get anyone else to translate for me. So what brings you here, Ray?"

I swallowed my coffee before responding. Complex answers to simple questions are anathema in courtship. This is even more true when the mother of one's intended is asking all the questions.

"I came to look for something. I'm headed for the high country in Umbria. Assisi. Definitely Gubbio. There's something east of that town, in the Bottacione Gorge, that I've waited a long time to see.

Bottacione GorgeK-T boundary

"Is this your first trip here?" Reena had elected to intervene.


"That seems like an odd place to go during your first trip to Italy. Unless you're making some sort of pilgrimage in honor of Saint Francis."

"More Gubbio than Assisi, and something more mystical than any saint. Umbria as a whole has a lock on the Middle Ages, both in the sense of being medieval and in the sense of being Mesozoic." I couldn't resist. Though I hadn't mentioned the K-T boundary by name, I wanted my companions — Shelley, Reena, preferably both — to take the conversational bait.

Neither did. "Wouldn't you rather see Rome? You can't come to Italy for the first time, and for all I know the last time, without seeing the capital," said Reena. "Come visit me there."

I found myself studying the card of one Corinna Anne Harrelson. In that moment I coveted no greater possession. "Okay. When?"

"Come whenever you're ready. I'm taking Mom to the airport for her flight home tomorrow afternoon. I figure you'll spend a day, maybe two, hiking the Cinque Terre. Then come see where it all began."

Where it all began. There lay the difference between Reena and me. She had clearly favored the medieval over the Mesozoic. In the course of human history, or at least of Western civilization, the fall of Rome in 476 corresponds to natural history's end-Permian extinction event. Indeed, the three most recent eras of the Phanerozoic eon correspond nicely with the tripartite understanding of ancient, medieval, and modern history. Geological time, unlike its human counterpart, is known by Greek rather than Latin names: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras comprise the whole of the Phanerozoic. Human history, however, lacks the clarity with which geological time separates the Permian from the Triassic or the Cretaceous from the Tertiary. No single moment like the K-T boundary separates the human equivalent of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. To be sure, there was a great dying, among humans and nonhumans alike, triggered by European exploration and colonization. Neither natural nor human history, however, knows such a word as forever. Ruins marking the many transitions of human history are the primary objects of tourism.

In planning my trip to Italy, I had contemplated visits to those ruins as little more than incidental byproducts of a vastly deeper pilgrimage. Years of longing and anxious anticipation had preceded my journey to touch the middle ages of earth's history. Coffee in the company of Shelley and Reena Harrelson dissolved my plans to visit the iridium anomaly near Gubbio. The allure of Roman antiquity, presented by a guide I had known for scarcely an hour, had jolted my quest to see the K-T boundary.

A straightforward calculation of time dictated my decision. The global iridium anomaly, which made itself known for the first time at Gubbio, had lain in place 65 million years. Within 65 seconds I had decided that I wanted more time with Reena Harrelson. Between the staircase and coffee in Corniglia's main square, I had managed to spend roughly 65 minutes in Reena's company — just enough time, if she were so inclined, for her to reciprocate my snap judgment. And in 65 hours I would discover whether I would continue to mark time, by any measure, with Corinna Anne Harrelson, soprano and Rotary Scholar.

"I'm sure I can reach Rome in time for dinner Thursday." Those words deferred my dream of seeing the K-T boundary in Gubbio. Extinction is forever, but a romantic opportunity is evanescent to the precise extent that it is remote and implausible. I was prepared to postpone my homage to the most recent moment when all of earth experienced instant death and slow rebirth.

"Thursday in Rome, then." Reena slid her chair away from the table. "Ray, when we're done here, would you mind walking with my mother and me back to the top of the staircase? We can look at the sea together one more time before Mom and I head back down and walk to Manarola."

θαλασσα, θαλασσα. The sea itself, like Reena's voice, had awakened a sleeping desire. That seductive voice, the percussion of the waves upon the Ligurian shore, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, invited my soul out of its own abysses of solitude. In my quest for iridium, I had lost myself in mazes of inward contemplation. And now the voice before me spoke to my soul; the touch of the sensuous seaside air enfolded my body in its soft, close embrace.

Ever mindful of Orfeo, the master musician who tamed neither love nor death, I took pains to follow the Harrelsons. That perspective gave me the chance to observe Reena from an altogether different angle. Again the wind lifted her hair and obscured the contours of her face. A few drops of rain fell as we walked back toward the staircase. The air hinted of heavier showers, perhaps even a storm by noon. Reena began singing to herself, nearly sotto voce. Her song was heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea, but loud enough to mix memory and desire, to stir the dull roots of my yearning in the spring rain. I followed, transfixed by her veiled beauty and by a voice as rare as iridium.



Blogger Susan from Sisters, Oregon said...

Bravo! I'm ready to read more! Your story is unfolding... I began not sure of where the first few paragraphs would lead, then Italy and Reena were revealed. I liked the way you communicated the unsaid when you met her. Writing teachers always say realistic dialog is hard to write -- but I'm hearing the voices you created. Back for more soon...

9:35 PM  
Blogger Matthew Long said...

Lovely, I clicked to here intending to read for study but instead stayed to read for pleasure. Your words are captivating.

5:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Web Iridescence